Building a tea room empire

bluewhiteteacupHistorically, few tea rooms have enjoyed financial success. So, while “empire” may be a bit grandiose, it’s hard not be impressed by the tea rooms enterprise Ida Frese and her cousin, Ada Mae Luckey, built in New York City in the early 20th century. Ida and Ada, both from a small town near Toledo OH, struck it rich by winning the patronage of wealthy society women. Over time they owned six eating places: the Colonia Tea Room (their first), the 5th Avenue Tea Room, the Garden Tea Room in the O’Neill-Adams dry goods store, the Woman’s Lunch Club, and two Vanity Fair Tea Rooms.

How they did it is a mystery not fully explained by the reputed deliciousness of their waffles nor the coziness of the Vanity Fair’s fireplace. I have not been able to find anything about their backgrounds that explains what prepared them for business success. Although contemporary publications cited them as the founders of one of NYC’s first tea rooms, it’s not clear exactly when they got their start. In 1900 Ida, 28 years old, was still living with her family in Ohio, however only ten years later she and Ada were well established in New York, running at least four tea rooms.

vanityfair278Clearly they valued a good location. The Vanity Fair at 4 West Fortieth Street began in 1911, bearing a notice on its postcard (pictured) that it was across the street from the “new” public library which also opened in 1911. The tea room’s upstairs ballroom was the site of many a party, such as a Shrove Tuesday celebration in February 1914 attended by 150 masked guests.

fresetearoomsAdding to their financial success were several real estate coups. In 1914 Ida somehow obtained a lease on a coveted Fifth Avenue property. Her feat astonished everyone who followed real estate deals since the owner, a granddaughter of William H. Vanderbilt, had turned down repeated offers from would-be lessees and buyers. The house at #379 was one of the last residences on Fifth Avenue between 34th and 42nd streets which had not been turned into a store or office building. Ida and Ada moved the Colonia, previously on 33rd Street, to this address and rented the remaining space to retail businesses, dubbing the structure the “Women’s Commercial Building.”

In 1920 they constructed a building at 3 East 38th Street, planning to relocate the Vanity Fair Tea Room because they feared – incorrectly as it turned out – that they would lose the lease for the old Vanity Fair on West 40th. Just four years later Ida took an 84-year lease on the five-story office building at the southeast corner of Madison Avenue and 33rd Street. Eventually she bought this, as well as the Fifth Avenue property which was at some point replaced by a 6-story building. By 1926, in addition to the three pieces of Manhattan real estate, Ida and Ada had also acquired a farm in Connecticut where they grew vegetables and flowers for the tea rooms.

I don’t know the eventual fate of the tea rooms, but Ida and Ada, both in their late 80s, died in Los Angeles in 1959.

© Jan Whitaker, 2009

4 Comments

Filed under proprietors & careers, tea shops, women

4 responses to “Building a tea room empire

  1. Janice Weber Fox

    My grandmother and my great aunt worked for Miss Frese and Miss Luckey for many years. I as a child, in the 40’s would go with them to the Colonia on East 38th St in the summer when I was on school vacation. I would help by setting tables, filling sugar bowls and salt and pepper shakers. I loved seeing the ladies with their hats, gloves and furs enjoying their lunches. Food was prepared in the basement and sent up on the dumbwaiter.
    In their later years in California, my grandmother helped to take care of the two ladies as they then suffered from dementia. Miss Frese was an accomplished artist and had a large studio on their property in Inglewood, Ca.
    Jan, I have a lot more information about the tea room, if you are interested. Please contact me. Thank you for your article.

  2. The Vanity Fair on 40th Street is given a mention in Ursula Parrott’s then-sensational (if not downright scandalous) 1929 novel Ex-Wife.

    It really is just a brief mention, as the title character, Patricia, and her (not yet ex-)husband’s new girl friend meet on the street.

    “Hello,” she said, “where are you going?”
    “Luncheon,” I said, “are you?”
    “Yes,” she said. “Will you lunch with me?”
    “Love to,” I said.
    We went to the Vanity Fair tea-room on 40th Street.
    She took off her hat, as soon as she sat down, saying she was hot. I noticed there was a light over her head, and remembered what Lucia said about Judith never losing an opportunity to let light shine across her auburn hair.

  3. Hi Jan,
    I adore this post. How fascinating. I often spot articles about tea room enterprises in back issues of American Cookery. I’m going to make a note to do further investigating now that I can associate “faces” to some of the names mentioned in the articles. I’ll be on the look-out for Ida and Ada.

    Thank you so much for sharing this wonderful story…

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